January 13, 2018: Creole Country
Having been to New Orleans, I wanted to see another part of Louisiana. So, I decided to visit Shreveport over the Martin Luther King Day long weekend. Unfortunately, there were no direct flights from LA to Shreveport and connecting anywhere was very expensive- at least $450. Instead, decided to fly to Dallas which was 3 hours away for just $120.
After working a full-day on Friday, I flew to Dallas Love Field and landed around 11pm. I then rented a car, stopped briefly at Raising Cane’s for some fried chicken and then drove east towards Louisiana. 2 hours later, I got tired and spent the night in a motel in Longview, Texas.
The next morning I continued east on Interstate 20. 45 minutes later, I saw the road sign “Bienvenue en Louisiane”. Almost immediately, I started seeing police officers. In the 90 minutes it took me to drive from the border to Natchitoches, I saw at least 10 sheriffs. My suspicion is that this has something to do with the increased power of the sheriff’s office under Louisiana’s unique system of laws. Luckily I was not speeding, so I did not get pulled over.
After snagging a crawfish pie for breakfast, I headed over to the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. This park contains two plantations now owned by the National Park Service. It also forms part of the Cane River National Heritage Area, which protects the unique Creole culture of this particular small part of Louisiana.
The world Creole has a few different meanings. It is most commonly associated with the pidgin languages and mixed-race peoples of the Caribbean. However in Louisiana, Creole means anything that is from the New World as opposed to from France. Creole can describe furniture, food, and people of all races. White, black and mixed race people would all be considered Creole if they descend from families that have lived in certain parts of Louisiana for quite some time. While Creoles come from many different racial backgrounds, they share a strong French cultural influence, certain surnames and a Catholic heritage. Due to the large amount of racial intermixing, the African influence in Creole culture is also strong and those of African descent were able to rise in social standing- in sharp contrast to most other parts of the South.
Creoles and Cajun are not the same. Cajuns describe the descendants of French Canadians that moved to Southern Louisiana in the late 1600’s. While Cajuns are also Catholic and speak a form of French, they are almost exclusively white.
My first stop on the Cane River was the Oakland Plantation which farmed cotton. It is now run by the National Park Service. The plantation buildings were all completely intact. This included the Big House, general store, overseer’s cabins and slave cabin. The Big House could only be visited on a guided tour and the next tour wasn’t for another 2 hours. However, the overseer’s cabin and slave cabins were open. Life really was not good for anyone on the plantation except for the ruling family. The slaves and overseers worked exceedingly hard.
After slavery was abolished, most of the families stayed on as sharecroppers. As sharecroppers, their lives were still only marginally better than when they were enslaved.
Many plantations shut down once farm labor became mechanized in the aftermath of World War II. The very first cotton picker tractor had the efficiency of 40 workers. Today, cotton pickers are hundreds of times more efficient. The plantations that did survive mostly became convenience stores (like early 7-Elevens). Today most of the surviving plantations are museums.
15 minutes south along a windy river road was the privately-owned Melrose Plantation. The next tour wasn’t for another 45 minutes, so I paid $5 to walk around the grounds. Melrose was the largest and most successful plantation on the Cane River. Interestingly, it was owned and run by a black woman and her ten children. Together they had 450 slaves! Also of note on this plantation was the home of famed Louisiana artist Clementine Hunter who originally was a cook at the plantation.
Another 10 minutes down the road was the Magnolia Plantation. While the Big House was still owned and occupied by the original family, the rest of the plantation is owned by the National Park Service.
Here, a ranger staffed the general store and did a great job at answering all my questions about this complicated micro-region. At the back of the plantation- about 300 yards from the general store was an original cotton gin. There, the park service put up an interesting display entitled King Cotton. It said:
In 1860 Ambrose LeComte sent 1,133 400 lbs. bales of cotton to New Orleans.
*At .10/lbs. one bale = $40
*1133 bales x $40 = 45,320
*Using an inflation calculator, $45,320 = $1,177,038.40 in 2014 dollars
Remember, there is no personal income tax and his labor costs are cheap.
Is it any wonder why the South was willing to wage war to keep the institution of slavery?
Today, the median household income in Natchitoches Parish is $31,345- fewer dollars than the plantation owner made in 1860 not adjusted for inflation!
It was now close to lunchtime, so I headed north back towards Natchitoches. Along the way I stopped at the landmark St. Augustine Catholic Church. It was the second church in America built by people of color, but was used by all the Catholic Creoles in the area who didn’t want to travel to Natchitoches. Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, the founder of the church, was one of the sons of the owner of the Melrose Plantation.
Finally, I made it to Natchitoches, the oldest city in Louisiana. The historic district felt like a mini-French Quarter. There were lots of cute French-style buildings, cute shops mostly catering to tourists, and a beautiful Catholic minor basilica. For some reason, the town installed speakers blasting classic rock. “Layla” by Eric Clapton was on and the whole town was rocking out! There were also lots of delicious-looking restaurants including the landmark Lasayoune’s Meat Pies.
Obviously I had to try the meat pie- a regional specialty of Natchitoches. It looked like a McDonald’s apple pie, except it was filled with seasoned meat. Lasayoune’s meat pie was good, but honestly I liked their crawfish pie better.
Also randomly in Natchitoches is the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. With its super modern architecture, the museum stands out in the historic downtown. I spent almost an hour wandering the small two story museum. The takeaway from the museum is that there are a lot of famous athletes from Louisiana and Louisianans really like all their sports but especially football.
Outside of the downtown, Natchitoches has two more cool tourist attractions, the house from the movie Steel Magnolias…
And a recreation of the French fort, Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The original fort was built in today’s downtown Natchitoches and marked the edge of New France. The easternmost fort in New Spain, disappeared when the town transferred to the Spanish in a friendly takeover. This was one of the better smaller historic sites I’ve visited. I especially liked the in-character docent.
It was now about 3 in the afternoon and time to head out of town towards Driskill Mountain, my final stop of the day. But first I passed by the towns of Castor.
And this amazing sign.
I learned about the sign about a week before the trip. I knew about Bryceland a ways before, but then noticed Castor while scrolling through Google Maps. I then scoured Street View for a sign pointing to both towns and found it.
20 minutes past Bryceland is Driskill Mountain, the highest point in Louisiana. It really is a mountain that is visible from miles away. Unfortunately, the entrance was really hard to find and there is no cell coverage. . I drove around the entire mountain looking for it. It turns out the map is correct and the entrance to the trailhead is in a church parking lot.
The walk to the mountaintop was just under a mile and went through some pretty forest. You get the choice of whether to stay on the road or go on a more-scenic but longer trail. At the end, there is a booth at the summit, the top of Louisiana!!!
There, I watched the beautiful sunset before walking down to the car.
On the way back to Shreveport, I stopped at the monument marking the spot where the famed outlaws Bonnie and Clyde met their demise at the hands of the sheriff.
The Cane River and Northern Louisiana really surprised me. There is way more culture here than one would expect- as most people write this place off as nothing or “not New Orleans”. I would definitely go back to the area and am excited to do some more exploring in Louisiana.
Where I Went:
French Market Express, Oakland Plantation, Melrose Plantation, Magnolia Plantation, St. Augustine Catholic Church, Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen & Restaurant, Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, Kaffie Frederick General Mercantile, Steel Magnolia House, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, Driskill Mountain, Bonnie